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Road Trip: Eating Local in Chicago

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When I visit Chicago, I always look forward to sampling the amazing food.  Even simple fare like the hot dogs and pizza tastes better in Chicago.  During a recent visit, I had the pleasure of visiting Xoco, Chef Rick Bayless’ casual Mexican restaurant, and Blackbird, the flagship restaurant of Chef Paul Kahan.  Not too shabby when you get to dine from two James Beard winning chefs in one weekend.
Friday night, we picked up food from Xoco, which offers tasty Mexican street food.  From the moment we walked in, you could see the precise care that was given to every dish. 
The air was filled with the aroma of the stock simmering on the back burner and the hot chocolate being brewed at the bar.  The scent was mouth watering.
We ordered posole, two sandwiches (a cubana and the Friday special – shrimp and bacalao) and a hot chocolate.  It was the perfect amount of food for three and yet we could have eaten one of everything.  
The posole had a rich broth and a gentle spiciness that snuck up on you. 

The Cubana had all the deep rich flavors of Cuba.  The pork, black beans and avocado melted together in every savory bite.

But the Shrimp and Bacalao was my favorite.  It was like eating bouillabaise on a sandwich.  The shrimp and the salt cod blended together with the tomato sauce to make a truly addictive torta.
I would wait in line for these sandwiches any day of the week.
Saturday night, we headed to Blackbird.  I had been eagerly anticipating this dinner since Beverly and I visited Avec, Blackbird’s more casual sibling restaurant next door, the year before.   I’m going to start by telling you that the meal was incredible – everything I could have imagined and then some.  The atmosphere is inviting, the food was delectable and the service was perfect.  I would go back in a heartbeat.
Blackbird serves New American cuisine with a number of expertly selected locally-sourced items.  I chose to order the locally-sourced fare; Beverly & David chose to play a bit. 

For my starter, I chose a salad of endives with crispy potatoes, basil, dijon, pancetta and poached egg; all locally-sourced.  It was possibly the most delicious salad, I’ve ever eaten.  The crunchy potatoes with the fresh salad greens and the poached egg were truly magnificent.

Bev chose the crispy maryland soft shell crab with honey custard, edamame, yuba and soy caramel.  The crab was perfect – crispy and fresh, not soggy at all.

While David had the blue hill bay bouchot mussel soup with whitefish, saffron, garlic and basil.  I almost caught him trying to lick the bowl, but he grabbed a piece of bread to soak up the broth instead.

Honestly, we could have all stopped there, but there was more. David ordered the slow-cooked halibut with uni, black trumpet mushrooms, spring radishes, baby parsnips and ramps.  As they delivered his dish to him, the aroma of the ramps and the mushrooms wafted across the table.

Bev ordered the aged pekin duck breast with porcinis, fava beans and brown butter worcestershire sauce.  Did you catch that?  Brown Butter Worcestershire Sauce.  Oh my.  The duck was locally sourced and it was ever so tender.

As fantastic as their dishes were though, Bev and David were filled with order envy when my entree was brought to the table. First of all, you could smell the Slagel Family Farm pork belly grilling in the kitchen. But then, they brought it to the table. And they poured chorizo broth over the belly, royal trumpet mushrooms, melted leeks and pickled turmeric. And just a whiff of the broth made you salivate. I swear I saw David drool on his napkin.

The pork belly was perfectly cooked, grilled just so that the fat melted in your mouth but the meat still had a bit of firmness to it. And it was in chorizo broth. Yummmmmmmmm. I shared exactly the amount I had to in order to be polite and not one bit more.

As if we hadn’t indulged enough, we decided dessert was in order. David opted for the jivara chocolate ganache with ovaltine, sesame and banana bread ice cream.  It was actually a pretty fun collection and the chocolate ganache with ovaltine was surprisingly my favorite.

Bev and I ordered the chef’s collection of cheeses.  The Ewe’s Bloom from Prairie Fruit Farms, a sheep’s milk cheese from Champaign, Illinois was probably my favorite.  We had sampled it a the Green City Market that morning and I was excited to have it on the plate again.  Of course, the Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery was a terrific runner up.

Our meal was divine and we took a long walk to earn our dinner.  With so many outstanding places to try out in Chicago, I don’t know when I’ll get back to Blackbird again, but I hope it’s soon because it was soooo good.

If you’re visiting Chicago, here’s a list of other restaurants and chefs that support the Green City Market and source locally: Eat Local Chicago.

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Road Trip: Chicago’s Green City Market

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Chicago is one of my favorite cities.  It’s so vibrant, the people are so friendly and there are so many fantastic places to explore.  Oh, Chicago!

Fortunately, I have dear friends, Beverly and David, who live in Chicago and I typically get to visit at least once each year.  Despite our many adventures in the city, we had never been to a farmers market together.

During a recent visit we corrected that oversight and went to the opening weekend of the Chicago Green City Market.  The market is open year round, but the annual move to the great outdoors requires a celebration.  And, quite the celebration it was.

The market is open Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 7 am to 1 pm at the South end of Lincoln Park, near the zoo.  We arrived around 8:30 as Beverly warned that many of the stands sell out of product early because the chefs and the early birds buy up the best stuff fast.

We were greeted at the entrance by one of my favorite cheesemakers, Capriole.  You can often find one of their goat cheese varieties at Central Market, Whole Foods, and Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, but there were so many different choices at the farmers market.  It was hard not to buy one of everything.

After I finally tore myself away from the Capriole table, we headed into the market proper and were greeted by a bumper crop of what would be Spring crops in Austin – rhubarb, asparagus, onions, garlic, lettuces, greens and herbs galore.  It felt a bit like a time warp for me as it was mid-May, May 15th to be precise, and our Central Texas markets were already yielding the first summer crops of peaches, tomatoes and summer squash.  It was a great lesson in seasonality and place.

The Green City market is about twice the size of the Downtown Austin Farmers Market.  They operate under very strict growers only rules and all prepared foods must be made with local products.  This caused a bit of a challenge for me as it means that there was no coffee vendor at the market.  The information booth has a couple of containers of local roasted coffee they give away, but it goes very fast.  I suggest you buy your coffee before you go.

One of our more exciting finds was dried corn ears that can be used for popcorn.  I immediately thought of my friend Carla Crownover who has challenged herself to go a year without a grocery store.  She had told me that one of things she missed most was popcorn.  While not local, this corn didn’t come from the store so I decided it was fair game and got Carla a handful of ears.

The market sported a bounty of prepared foods as well.  There were vendors with jams and jellies and pickled items – even pickled mushrooms.

Floriole, a bakery who by chance has an employee who hails from Austin, offered up delicious cookies and pastries.  Their shortbread cookies were incredible.

There was even ice cream from Snooklefritz.  All of the flavors were from local produce, spices and herbs.  Ice cream.  Hey, Austin food artisans, where is my ice cream?
Being in the heart of the dairy belt, you could eat your weight in cheese at the market.  You had your pick of goat, sheep, or cow’s milk cheeses.  One of the more novel cheese products was a baked cheese similar in style to a Greek Haloumi that you serve warm after grilling or frying.  I particularly enjoyed visiting with their master griller – that girl knew her stuff.
Fortunately, one enterprising food artisan made terrific crackers to go with all that cheese.  Potter’s Cracker’s sells several varieties of handmade organic crackers including Classic White, Classic Wheat, Toasted Sesame and even a Hazelnut Graham.  The Classic White was a perfect partner for the local cheeses.
And, of course, several vendors were plating up delicious hot food.  We chose savory crepes with asparagus and cheese. 
Zullo’s, who also participates in the indoor French Market, was preparing beautiful doughnuts served up in a newspaper cone.  They were dusted with cinnamon and sugar and smelled delicious.
Sunday Dinner, a supper club and catering company similar to our own Dai Due, was grilling up fresh burgers with locally raised beef.  The buns and condiments were all locally made as well.  Christine Cikowski, the owner and chef, spoke with passion about their mission to capture the best flavors of the season in every dish they make.  I hope we can coordinate my next visit with one of their tasty dinners.
After shopping and eating our way through the market, we headed to the chef’s demo, a true treat as it featured two chefs, Carrie Nahabedian of Naha and Sarah Stegner of Prairie Fire, whose restaurants serve quality sustainabile fare and they are also board members of the Green City Market.
Carrie whipped up a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich with two of the market cheeses, a fried egg and some beautiful prosciutto.  
Chef Sarah  made a gorgeous salad to go with it made with sauteed ramps, radishes and asparagus.  They made it look so easy and the group sitting next to us in the crowd said they were inspired to go home and make some simple seasonal dishes.

We had a delightful morning at the Green City Market and it is well worth a visit the next time you are in Chicago.  
See you at the market!
Full photo set on Flickr: Chicago Green City Market Slide Show
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Shopping Local Chicago Style

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041109_1This weekend, I am visiting my friends Beverly and David in Chicago.  We have been friends since college and love to cook together, so I asked Bev if we could go to the farmers market and cook something for the blog.  She laughed at me.   Silly Texas girl that I am, I forgot that it’s still winter in Chicago and thus their farmers market doesn’t open for another month.

Luckily, Bev loves a good challenge and shopping for local fare, so 
she set out on a mission to find a place where we could get some 
local veggies.    As it turns out, there is a year round “farm stand” in Downtown Chicago that is aptly named Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.  This centrally located store front had a variety of vegetables, eggs, butter, cheeses, prepared foods  and locally made products.  It’s even run by the city!


We bought spinach and shitake mushrooms as well as some wonderful apple butter.  There were beautiful baked goods and we bought bunny cookies and handmade marshmallows for their kids’ Easter baskets. We also bought lollipops from Das Foods that come in crazy flavors like maple bacon (named “Man Bait) and ginger (“Naughty Ginger”).  It’ll be interesting to see what they taste like – the names are a scream.
I was particularly interested in some spice mixes from The Spice House.  Each spice mix  represents a different ethnic neighborhood  in Chicago.  I bought 4 at $2.00 each (which seemed like a great deal):
  • Bridgeport Seasoning – representing an Irish neighborhood, good for potatoes and steamed veggies
  • Greektown “Billy Goat” Seasoning for making gyro sauce or sprinkling on chicken, fish or pork chops.
  • Back of the Yards Garlic Pepper Butcher’s Rub – great for steaks, chops, chicken and roasts
  • Bronzeville Rib Rub for baby back ribs.

I can’t wait to get home and try out the spices.  I think I’ll use the rib rub on some of Countryside Farms wild boar ribs (stay tuned for that recipe).


After the Farm Stand, we headed to a cheese and wine shop called Pastoral.  They carry cheeses from around the world, but had a number of cheeses made nearby in Wisconsin, Michigan and even Nebraska.   We bought a Carr Valley Billy Blue, aWisconsin goat’s milk blue cheese that was incredible, and a Zingerman’s Creamery Lincoln Log, another goat’s milk cheese but from Michigan.
041109_4The big surprise for me in the cheese department was Capriole goat cheese from Indiana.  I have been buying this brand of goat cheese for years from Central Market and had no idea that it was made so close to Chicago and that Beverly is a regular at the cheese maker’s stand at Green City Market.  Talk about a small world.  
With all these great cheeses, we decided we need a great loaf of bread and had a short picnic on the lawn outside Bev’s.  We ate as much cheese, bread and apple butter as we could before our hands started to freeze.
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